Under-promise and over-deliver was the golden rule of my twenty-three years as a consultant. Yet this guiding principle clashes with the natural propensity of liberals towards optimism.
We assume the best in human nature, that, left to our own devices, we will make the right decisions (or at least take personal responsibility for making the wrong ones) and we therefore trust individuals ahead of institutions and local decision makers over national governments.
And this sunny outlook shapes our assessment of political prospects. It would be hard to continue to support the Liberal Democrats year in, year out, after the crushing disappointments of 2015 and 2017 and 2019 (not to mention 2010, 1992, 1987, 1983 etc etc etc) without an unhealthy overdose of optimism. And despite all our more cautious instincts, our hearts flutter one again as Biden opens up a double-digit lead, over a flailing Trump – surely he couldn’t win again? Surely we’re in the clear?
And this innate optimism may also shape our attitude to covid-19.
We like to consider ourselves rational beings so we reject Trumps promises of a vaccine by Christmas and are smugly satisfied that hydroxychlorine hasn’t turned out to the miracle cure that he and Bolsonaro promised. But we remain confident that something will turn up, and that English exceptionalism will protect us from the wave of second waves sweeping other countries across the globe. Maybe those Oxford boffins will after all be the first to create a vaccine?
President Obama gave us the audacity of hope, but we need to ask ourselves whether hope is in fact a useful instrument in policymaking. The lockdown, the Nightingale hospitals shielding were all driven by the need to plan for the worst, born if you like from pessimism rather than optimism. Perhaps the reopening of parts of our economy will turn out to be OK, but perhaps it is coming too soon and will indeed lead to a resurgence of covid across the UK .
And yet as a liberal (small L), I believe that we need government to give us grounds for hope. This is Boris’ biggest (possibly only) talent: to make people believe in him and feel good about themselves.
Yet if he over-promises and under-delivers now, come the covid spikes which will no doubt follow in autumn, whether big or small, will he retain the ability to give us hope? Is too much political capital being expended now on lifting the lockdown to give us the hope we will need to get us through the dark winter months?
Might a little less promise actually be a rather better thing? We cannot just will the world alright, however much we might wish it so.